Edison_Backstory_Opener_ReEdit-5

For more on microcontrollers and wearables, check out Make: Volume 43.  Don't have this issue? Get it in the Maker Shed.

For more on microcontrollers and wearables, check out Make: Volume 43.
Don’t have this issue? Get it in the Maker Shed.

Brian Krzanich stood in front of a packed audience at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Showcase in Las Vegas, backed by a sea of oversized blue display screens. The Intel CEO had just finished presenting a smartwatch and headset — new wearable projects that the company was collaborating on — when he reached into his pocket and pulled out what appeared to be an SD card.

The CES cameras steadied focus on the tiny board between his fingers as Krzanich explained that what he was holding was actually a full Pentium-class PC. The module was equipped with wi-fi, Bluetooth, and more, he continued, all designed to help people create powerful new tech products quickly. He called it the Edison.

Prototype Intel Edison in an epoxy enclosure

Prototype Intel Edison in an epoxy enclosure

The crowd loved it, and the tiny computer became one of the big stories of the January event. Its reveal had all the slickness of any prominent consumer-device product launch. But beneath its tidy package the Edison has the surprising imprint of the maker movement.

The story begins in Portland, Oregon, in January 2013 at the biannual Intel TechFest, an internal networking conference for senior engineers. A team from Intel labs in China, led by Sun Chan, presented a stamp-sized microcontroller called the PIA (short for Pervasive Intel Architecture) — a board with huge potential for makers.

Michael McCool, a software architect and principal Intel engineer based in Tokyo, took interest in the small chip with powerful processors. McCool, who often develops and demos projects at Maker Faires, fostered a relationship with Chan and his team, and began to consult on the project, providing technical expertise along with insights for mechanical design.

PIA team in December 2013

PIA team in December 2013

The now multinational PIA team continued to work on the project, refining technical specifications, and soon after found a new advocate in Intel CEO Krzanich. “One of our teams from Intel labs in China knew I was a maker and interested in the maker movement, so they brought Edison to me for a review,” Krzanich explains. “When I saw it I knew where it would lead us,” he continues, hinting at multiple development kits and online community resources.

With Krzanich’s go-ahead came a new deadline: The PIA team had to have a prototype ready to be unveiled at CES 2014, just three months away.

One particularly challenging aspect of transitioning the board from prototype to product, explains McCool, was that the team wanted to retain the original intention of an SD card form factor. “The problem is they couldn’t find any cases that could fit around it because the tolerances were so tight. The off-the-shelf cards wouldn’t fit.”

Forms

Preparing an early version of the Edison for resin encapsulation using silicone molds. The method was used in lieu of standard cases. Polishing the resin made it possible to see the internals.

Preparing an early version of the Edison for resin encapsulation using silicone molds. The method was used in lieu of standard cases. Polishing the resin made it possible to see the internals.

In true maker fashion, McCool tackled the problem by designing a cast-resin mold and embedding the card into epoxy, utilizing a workspace that was a far cry from the gleaming-white clean rooms shown in Intel commercials. “The masters for these molds were milled in the Tsukuba, Japan Intel site, but the actual encapsulation and pouring were done on [my] kitchen table,” he explains with a laugh.

But even with custom molds, obstacles remained. For example, the silicone sealant he used held the PCBs in place by their exposed contacts during pouring. “It was a real challenge to get the resin to flow into the tiny space around the prototype PCB.” After much experimentation, he found that first heating the resin in a warm-water bath reduced the viscosity significantly.

As the team scrambled to get ready for the CES 2014 reveal, other groups at Intel worked to take Edison from a lab initiative to a consumer good, looking for companies who could integrate the board into a new product for the launch.

Rest Devices’ Edison-powered Mimo Smart Baby Monitor, launched with Intel at CES 2014

Rest Devices’ Edison-powered Mimo Smart Baby Monitor, launched with Intel at CES 2014

Ed Ross, senior director of inventor platforms for the New Devices Group, found just the team for the task in Rest Devices, a Boston-based startup with a specialty in rapid prototyping. The firm jumped into the assignment, met the one-month deadline, and joined Krzanich onstage at CES to demo a baby-monitoring onesie called Mimo which uses Edison to handle sensor and communication I/O.

After the CES debut, the team continued to refine and augment Edison’s capabilities, swapping the original Quark processors for the newer, more powerful Atom cores and adding RF shielding absent in the epoxy-enclosed prototypes. Ultimately, these upgrades required a change in size and shape, but the diminutive computer still impresses at just 1.4″×1″. Intel officially released Edison to the public in September 2014, just 11 months after Krzanich had given the project the green light.